22 Vegetable Harvesting Tips

Use our no-fail guide to harvesting your crops when they’re in their prime

Photos by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver
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The artichoke we eat is the flower bud of a giant thistle. Snip the buds, with 1 1/2 inches of stem, while they are still plump and tight. They’re inedible after they flower, but you can cut the purple blooms for bouquets, or leave them for the bees.

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Bulb onions

When their green tops begin to die on their own (usually in early summer), stop watering. Lift the onions when the tops are mostly dead, leaving them to cure on dry ground for a few days. When the tops are totally dry, pull them off. Then brush the dirt off the bulbs and store them in a dark, cool, airy place.

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Pick and use it as needed. You can keep basil fresh by placing the stems in water. Pinch the flowers as soon as you see them developing—this will encourage the plant to keep growing bushy leaves instead of seeds.

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Sweet corn

After the visible silks have withered, pull back husks and pop a kernel with your thumbnail. If ripe, it will squirt a milky juice. Watery liquid means that the corn is immature; a toothpaste consistency means it’s past its prime. Eat corn as soon as possible after you pick—within hours, if not minutes.

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In early summer, when the leafy tops fall over, lift bulbs from the ground with a garden fork (rather than pulling the tops). Air-dry the bulbs for at least a few weeks, then cut off most of the tops and roots and store in a cool, well-ventilated place out of sunlight.

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Thump the melon—you want to hear a hollow sound—and check the underside for a pale yellow (not white) spot. Also make sure the tendrils where the melon attaches to the stem have darkened and withered. Watermelons don’t sweeten after they’re picked, so don’t harvest too early­.

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Pick snap beans every three to five days; if the pods are allowed to mature, the plant will stop producing. To harvest dry beans, leave pods on the vine until pods wither. Then remove beans from pods, dry them completely in a cool location, and store in an airtight container for later use.

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Lift the fruit and twist. If it’s ripe, it will slip easily off the stem. A pleasant perfume also indicates ripeness.

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Lift the fruit and twist. If it’s ripe, it will slip easily off the stem. A pleasant perfume also indicates ripeness.

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Most peppers can be picked green, as long as they’re close to full size. But their flavor becomes fuller if allowed to ripen on the plant to their mature color, which varies by variety.

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Harvest when their papery outer casings begin to split. Before eating, remove the husks and rinse off the sticky residue.

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Winter squash

Look for a fully hardened shell before removing, along with an inch of stem, from the vine. Store in a cool, dry place.

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Summer squash

Pick them when they’re small and tender for the best flavor. Be vigilant about harvesting—turn your back for a moment and you’ll grow a monster.

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These will keep coming, as long as you keep picking them. When cukes reach full size, you should harvest them every few days. Use scissors or pruners to snip the stem to avoid damaging the whole vine.

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Pick them after they develop some color but before they lose their glossy shine. Use scissors or pruners to cut off the eggplant from the plant, leaving at least 1 inch of stem attached to the fruit.

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Sweet potatoes

Dig these up before the first frost. Let the roots dry in the sun until you can brush the soil off, then keep them 10 to 14 days in a warm (about 85°), humid place. (This will improve the flavor.) After that, store in a cool, dry area, not below 55°.

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Dig them up after the plants die down, and after you’ve let them cure in the ground for two weeks. Store potatoes in a cool, dark, dry place.

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Begin harvesting when they reach finger size, usually 30 to 40 days after sowing (most take 60 to 70 days to fully mature). In mild-winter climates, carrots store well in the ground; dig them up as you need them.

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Gently poke into the soil around the crowns to check on their size, then begin harvesting when they are between 1 and 3 inches wide. Beets will be woody if allowed to grow bigger than that.

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They’re best when harvested and eaten as soon as they reach full size, which varies by variety—this can be as early as three weeks after sowing. They can become woody or pungent when left in the ground for too long.

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Green garlic

Dig a few of your immature bulbs in spring. The individual cloves aren’t yet fully formed, and the skin is still green and succulent. Use as you would scallions.

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Snap peas

Pick all the pods that are plump and filled out; your plants will stop producing if their seeds (the peas) are allowed to ripen. Vines can be brittle, so avoid breaking them by steadying the stem with one hand while picking with the other.